Redshirt junior Taylor Kelly struggled the first time around against Stanford, completing just 30 of his 55 pass attempts while throwing a season-high two interceptions. Kelly has matured as a quarterback since then, especially with his ability to run the football. Kelly has completed just 56.5 percent of his passes the past two homes games and has thrown just two touchdowns, compared to three interceptions, so he will need to be sharper to beat a good Cardinal defense.
Minus the Cal game on Nov. 23, junior Kevin Hogan hasn’t thrown for 200 yards since Oct. 19 against UCLA. Hogan has struggled on the road, too, especially in the two games the Cardinal have lost, completing just 55.8 percent of his passes. Hogan did a good job of managing the game against the Sun Devils earlier this season, completing 64.7 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and just one interception.
Senior Marion Grice won’t be available again, a big blow considering the Sun Devils ran for just 50 yards against Stanford back in September. The duo of sophomore D.J. Foster and redshirt junior De’Marieya Nelson provides hope, though. Foster had the best rushing game of his career against UA (124 yards, two touchdowns) and Nelson was very effective in short-yard and goal-line situations.
Senior Tyler Gaffney has assumed the role of feature back, something the Sun Devils didn’t face the first time around. Gaffney and fellow senior Anthony Wilkerson each had 18 carries but Gaffney has eclipsed that mark six times since. Gaffney had his best statistical game against Notre Dame, rushing for 189 yards and a touchdown, and has run for 1,485 yards total this season.
Wide receiver/tight end
Redshirt sophomore Jaelen Strong said he played horrible against Stanford earlier in the season despite catching 12 passes for 168 yards, both season highs, and a touchdown. It’s scary to think what Strong could do Saturday if he plays up to his standards. The Sun Devils still can’t find a reliable second option behind Strong, though, as no other receiver caught more than two passes against UA. A possible option is senior tight end Chris Coyle, who caught a 45-yard touchdown pass against the Cardinal in their first meeting.
Two Stanford receivers burned the Sun Devils earlier in the season, juniors Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. Montgomery had 62 yards and two touchdowns while Cajuste had 67 yards and made a spectacular catch over the middle to set up a touchdown. The Sun Devils have struggled all season with big, athletic receivers like Cajuste, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds.
The Sun Devils line, led by senior first team All-Pac-12 selection Evan Finkenberg and junior second team All-Pac-12 selection Jamil Douglas, has really come on as of late and did a very nice job of blocking for Foster against UA. It’s crucial they get the running game going early or it might be a long night for Finkenberg, Douglas and crew like it was against Stanford in September.
Stanford can rely on the run behind its players up front, who are extremely good. Leading the way is All-American and two-time All-Pac-12 first team selection senior David Yankey. Three other Cardinal offensive lineman, including sophomore Andrus Peat, made second team All-Pac-12. The Cardinal have the best line in the Pac-12 and allowed just one sack to ASU in their first meeting.
One would be hard pressed to find a front four that’s playing better than the Sun Devils’ line right now. Redshirt junior Carl Bradford had four tackles for loss against UA, springing him into the team lead with 16 on the season. Senior Davon Coleman is right behind Bradford with 14 tackles for loss and is tied for the team lead in sacks with Bradford at 7.5 on the season. Meanwhile, redshirt senior Will Sutton (10.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) just won his second consecutive Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award.
Redshirt senior Ben Gardner was selected first team All-Pac-12 after posting 7.5 tackles for loss, but wasn’t even the best statistical leader of the line. Fellow redshirt senior Josh Mauro finished with 10.5 tackles for loss and picked up his only interception of the season against Kelly and the Sun Devils. Another quality game from the two could see Kelly getting forced into mistakes once again.
Senior Chris Young has continued his amazing play and now ranks third on the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Young also leads the Sun Devils in tackles with 95 and finished with a team-high 10 tackles against Stanford in September. The early-season matchup against the Cardinal was the first major playing time redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso got all season and Fiso performed, leading the defense with 1.5 tackles for loss even though he didn’t play for most of the first three quarters.
For as good as Stanford is on the offensive line, it might be better at linebacker. Redshirt seniors Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov were both selected first-team All-Pac-12. Murphy led the Cardinal with 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks while Skov led the team in tackles with 91. The two combined for two tackles for loss and a sack against the Sun Devils earlier this season.
Three of the four starting defensive backs grabbed interceptions against UA, including redshirt junior Damarious Randall’s 64-yard pick-six that put the Wildcats away. The secondary has done an outstanding job of creating turnovers all season, amassing 16 interceptions combined. The only member of the Sun Devils secondary that didn’t record an interception against the Wildcats, senior Robert Nelson, was coincidentally the only one to grab an interception against Stanford earlier this season.
Senior Ed Reynolds earned first team All-Pac-12 honors for the second consecutive season but his game against the Sun Devils wasn’t his finest. Reynolds, third on the team in tackles, was ejected for targeting, which helped spur the Sun Devils comeback. Junior Jordan Richards leads the Cardinal with three interceptions.
The Sun Devils have struggled all season punting and the Stanford game was at the forefront of those struggles. Freshman Matt Haack had a punt blocked that turned into a safety and freshman placekicker Zane Gonzalez missed a field goal. Gonzalez hasn’t missed a field goal since and senior Alex Garoutte has stabilized punt duties, but it’s far from perfect.
ASU coach Todd Graham called Stanford the best special teams unit in the conference at his Monday press conference. Graham has a good argument as senior placekicker Jordan Williamson is 15 for 19 on field goals and senior Ben Rhyne is averaging 42.2 yards per punt. Montgomery also beat the Sun Devils with long returns, including a 50-yarder on the opening kickoff.
Overall EDGE: ASU
It’s been a season of destiny for ASU. All the pieces have fallen into place for the Sun Devils to make their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1996-97 season. The Sun Devils were blessed with a championship game at Sun Devil Stadium, where they are undefeated this season. Both of Stanford’s losses have come on the road. The Sun Devils and the Cardinal are both different teams than they were in their first matchup, but with home field advantage and hungry team and fan base looking for a championship, the pendulum swings in the Sun Devils’ favor. The Sun Devils should smell roses before the clock strikes midnight Saturday.
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